In this lyrical, exuberant follow-up to her novel, The Bastard of Istanbul, acclaimed Turkish author Elif Shafak unfolds two tantalizing parallel narratives—one contemporary and the other set in the thirteenth century, when Rumi encountered his spiritual mentor, the whirling dervish known as Shams of Tabriz—that together incarnate the poet's timeless message of love.
Ella Rubenstein is forty years old and unhappily married when she takes a job as a reader for a literary agent. Her first assignment is to read and report on Sweet Blasphemy, a novel written by a man named Aziz Zahara. Ella is mesmerized by his tale of Shams's search for Rumi and the dervish's role in transforming the successful but unhappy cleric into a committed mystic, passionate poet, and advocate of love. She is also taken with Shams's lessons, or rules, that offer insight into an ancient philosophy based on the unity of all people and religions, and the presence of love in each and every one of us. As she reads on, she realizes that Rumi's story mirrors her own and that Zahara—like Shams—has come to set her free.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
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|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Between your fingers you hold a stone and throw it into flowing water. The effect might not be easy to see. There will be a small ripple where the stone breaks the surface and then a splash, muffled by the rush of the surrounding river. That’s all.
Throw a stone into a lake. The effect will be not only visible but also far more lasting. The stone will disrupt the still waters. A circle will form where the stone hit the water, and in a flash that circle will multiply into another, then another. Before long the ripples caused by one plop will expand until they can be felt everywhere along the mirrored surface of the water. Only when the circles reach the shore will they stop and die out.
If a stone hits a river, the river will treat it as yet another commotion in its already tumultuous course. Nothing unusual. Nothing unmanageable.
If a stone hits a lake, however, the lake will never be the same again.
For forty years Ella Rubinstein’s life had consisted of still waters—a predictable sequence of habits, needs, and preferences. Though it was monotonous and ordinary in many ways, she had not found it tiresome. During the last twenty years, every wish she had, every person she befriended, and every decision she made was filtered through her marriage. Her husband, David, was a successful dentist who worked hard and made a lot of money. She had always known that they did not connect on any deep level, but connecting emotionally need not be a priority on a married couple’s list, she thought, especially for a man and a woman who had been married for so long. There were more important things than passion and love in a marriage, such as understanding, affection, compassion, and that most godlike act a person could perform, forgiveness. Love was secondary to any of these. Unless, that is, one lived in novels or romantic movies, where the protagonists were always larger than life and their love nothing short of legend.
Ella’s children topped her list of priorities. They had a beautiful daughter in college, Jeannette, and teenage twins, Orly and Avi. Also, they had a twelve-year-old golden retriever, Spirit, who had been Ella’s walking buddy in the mornings and her cheeriest companion ever since he’d been a puppy. Now he was old, overweight, completely deaf, and almost blind; Spirit’s time was coming, but Ella preferred to think he would go on forever. Then again, that was how she was. She never confronted the death of anything, be it a habit, a phase, or a marriage, even when the end stood right in front of her, plain and inevitable.
The Rubinsteins lived in Northampton, Massachusetts, in a large Victorian house that needed some renovation but still was splendid, with five bedrooms, three baths, shiny hardwood floors, a three-car garage, French doors, and, best of all, an outdoor Jacuzzi. They had life insurance, car insurance, retirement plans, college savings plans, joint bank accounts, and, in addition to the house they lived in, two prestigious apartments: one in Boston, the other in Rhode Island. She and David had worked hard for all this. A big, busy house with children, elegant furniture, and the wafting scent of homemade pies might seem a cliché to some people, but to them it was the picture of an ideal life. They had built their marriage around this shared vision and had attained most, if not all, of their dreams.
On their last Valentine’s Day, her husband had given her a heart-shaped diamond pendant and a card that read,
To my dear Ella,
A woman with a quiet manner, a generous heart, and the patience of a saint. Thank you for accepting me as I am. Thank you for being my wife.
Ella had never confessed this to David, but reading his card had felt like reading an obituary. This is what they will write about me when I die, she had thought. And if they were sincere, they might also add this:
Building her whole life around her husband and children, Ella lacked any survival techniques to help her cope with life’s hardships on her own. She was not the type to throw caution to the wind. Even changing her daily coffee brand was a major effort.
All of which is why no one, including Ella, could explain what was going on when she filed for divorce in the fall of 2008 after twenty years of marriage.
But there was a reason: love.
They did not live in the same city. Not even on the same continent. The two of them were not only miles apart but also as different as day and night. Their lifestyles were so dissimilar that it seemed impossible for them to bear each other’s presence, never mind fall in love. But it happened. And it happened fast, so fast in fact that Ella had no time to realize what was happening and to be on guard, if one could ever be on guard against love.
Love came to Ella as suddenly and brusquely as if a stone had been hurled from out of nowhere into the tranquil pond of her life.
NORTHAMPTON, MAY 17, 2008
Birds were singing outside her kitchen window on that balmy day in spring. Afterward Ella replayed the scene in her mind so many times that, rather than a fragment from the past, it felt like an ongoing moment still happening somewhere out there in the universe.
There they were, sitting around the table, having a late family lunch on a Saturday afternoon. Her husband was filling his plate with fried chicken legs, his favorite food. Avi was playing his knife and fork like drumsticks while his twin, Orly, was trying to calculate how many bites of which food she could eat so as not to ruin her diet of 650 calories a day. Jeannette, who was a freshman at Mount Holyoke College nearby, seemed lost in her thoughts as she spread cream cheese on another slice of bread. Also at the table sat Aunt Esther, who had stopped by to drop off one of her famous marble cakes and then stayed on for lunch. Ella had a lot of work to do afterward, but she was not ready to leave the table just yet. Lately they didn’t have too many shared family meals, and she saw this as a golden chance for everyone to reconnect.
“Esther, did Ella give you the good news?” David asked suddenly. “She found a great job.”
Though Ella had graduated with a degree in English literature and loved fiction, she hadn’t done much in the field after college, other than editing small pieces for women’s magazines, attending a few book clubs, and occasionally writing book reviews for some local papers. That was all. There was a time when she’d aspired to become a prominent book critic, but then she simply accepted the fact that life had carried her elsewhere, turning her into an industrious housewife with three kids and endless domestic responsibilities.
Not that she complained. Being the mother, the wife, the dog walker, and the housekeeper kept her busy enough. She didn’t have to be a breadwinner on top of all these. Though none of her feminist friends from Smith College approved of her choice, she was satisfied to be a stay-at-home mom and grateful that she and her husband could afford it. Besides, she had never abandoned her passion for books and still considered herself a voracious reader.
A few years ago, things had begun to change. The children were growing up, and they made it clear that they didn’t need her as much as they once had. Realizing that she had too much time to spare and no one to spend it with, Ella had considered how it might be to find a job. David had encouraged her, but though they kept talking and talking about it, she rarely pursued the opportunities that came her way, and when she did, potential employers were always looking for someone younger or more experienced. Afraid of being rejected over and over, she had simply let the subject drop.
Nevertheless, in May 2008 whatever obstacle had impeded her from finding a job all these years unexpectedly vanished. Two weeks shy of her fortieth birthday, she found herself working for a literary agency based in Boston. It was her husband who found her the job through one of his clients—or perhaps through one of his mistresses.
“Oh, it’s no big deal,” Ella rushed to explain now. “I’m only a part-time reader for a literary agent.”
But David seemed determined not to let her think too little of her new job. “Come on, tell them it’s a well-known agency,” he urged, nudging her, and when she refused to comply, he heartily agreed with himself. “It’s a prestigious place, Esther. You should see the other assistants! Girls and boys fresh out of the best colleges. Ella is the only one going back to work after being a housewife for years. Now, isn’t she something?”
Ella wondered if, deep inside, her husband felt guilty about keeping her away from a career, or else about cheating on her—these being the only two explanations she could think of as to why he was now going overboard in his enthusiasm.
Still smiling, David concluded, “This is what I call chutzpah. We’re all proud of her.”
“She is a prize. Always was,” said Aunt Esther in a voice so sentimental that it sounded as if Ella had left the table and was gone for good.
They all gazed at her lovingly. Even Avi didn’t make a cynical remark, and Orly for once seemed to care about something other than her looks. Ella forced herself to appreciate this moment of kindness, but she felt an overwhelming exhaustion that she had never experienced before. She secretly prayed for someone to change the subject.
Jeannette, her older daughter, must have heard the prayer, for she suddenly chimed in, “I have some good news, too.”
All heads turned toward her, faces beaming with expectation.
“Scott and I have decided to get married,” Jeannette announced. “Oh, I know what you guys are going to say! That we haven’t finished college yet and all that, but you’ve got to understand, we both feel ready for the next big move.”
An awkward silence descended upon the kitchen table as the warmth that had canopied them just a moment ago evaporated. Orly and Avi exchanged blank looks, and Aunt Esther froze with her hand tightened around a glass of apple juice. David put his fork aside as if he had no appetite left and squinted at Jeannette with his light brown eyes that were deeply creased with smile lines at the corners. However, right now he was anything but smiling. His mouth had drawn into a pout, as though he had just downed a swig of vinegar.
“Great! I expected you to share my happiness, but I get this cold treatment instead,” Jeannette whined.
“You just said you were getting married,” remarked David as ifJeannette didn’t know what she’d said and needed to be informed.
“Dad, I know it seems a bit too soon, but Scott proposed to me the other day and I’ve already said yes.”
“But why?” asked Ella.
From the way Jeannette looked at her, Ella reckoned, that was not the kind of question her daughter had expected. She would rather have been asked “When?” or “How?” In either case it meant that she could start shopping for her wedding dress. The question “Why?” was another matter altogether and had completely caught her off guard.
“Because I love him, I guess.” Jeannette’s tone was slightly condescending.
“Honey, what I meant was, why the rush?” insisted Ella. “Are you pregnant or something?”
Aunt Esther twitched in her chair, her face stern, her anguish visible. She took an antacid tablet from her pocket and started chewing on it.
“I’m going to be an uncle,” Avi said, giggling.
Ella held Jeannette’s hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. “You can always tell us the truth. You know that, right? We’ll stand by you no matter what.”
“Mom, will you please stop that?” Jeannette snapped as she pulled her hand away. “This has nothing to do with pregnancy. You’re embarrassing me.”
“I was just trying to help,” Ella responded calmly, calmness being a state she had been lately finding harder and harder to achieve.
“By insulting me, you mean. Apparently the only way you can see Scott and me getting married is me being knocked up! Does it ever occur to you that I might, just might, want to marry this guy because I love him? We have been dating for eight months now.”
This elicited a scoff from Ella. “Oh, yeah, as if you could tell a man’s character in eight months! Your father and I have been married for almost twenty years, and even we can’t claim to know everything about each other. Eight months is nothing in a relationship!”
“It took God only six days to create the entire universe,” said Avi, beaming, but cold stares from everyone at the table forced him back into silence.
Sensing the escalating tension, David, his eyes fixed on his elder daughter, his brow furrowed in thought, interjected, “Honey, what your mom is trying to say is that dating is one thing, marrying is quite another.”
“But, Dad, did you think we would date forever?” Jeannette asked.
Drawing in a deep breath, Ella said, “To be perfectly blunt, we were expecting you to find someone better. You’re too young to get involved in any serious relationship.”
“You know what I’m thinking, Mom?” Jeannette said in a voice so flat as to be unrecognizable. “I’m thinking you’re projecting your own fears onto me. But just because you married so young and had a baby when you were my age, that doesn’t mean I’m going to make the same mistake.”
Ella blushed crimson as if slapped in the face. From deep within she remembered the difficult pregnancy that had resulted in Jeannette’s premature birth. As a baby and then as a toddler, her daughter had drained all of her energy, which was why she had waited six years before getting pregnant again.
“Sweetheart, we were happy for you when you started dating Scott,” David said cautiously, trying a different strategy. “He’s a nice guy. But who knows what you’ll be thinking after graduation? Things might be very different then.”
Jeannette gave a small nod that conveyed little more than feigned acquiescence. Then she said, “Is this because Scott isn’t Jewish?”
David rolled his eyes in disbelief. He had always taken pride in being an open-minded and cultured father, avoiding negative remarks about race, religion, or gender in the house.
Jeannette, however, seemed relentless. Turning to her mother, she asked, “Can you look me in the eye and tell me you’d still be making the same objections if Scott were a young Jewish man named Aaron?”
Jeannette’s voice needled with bitterness and sarcasm, and Ella feared there was more of that welling up inside her daughter.
“Sweetheart, I’ll be completely honest with you, even if you might not like it. I know how wonderful it is to be young and in love. Believe me, I do. But to get married to someone from a different background is a big gamble. And as your parents we want to make sure you’re doing the right thing.”
“And how do you know your right thing is the right thing for me?”
The question threw Ella off a little. She sighed and massaged her forehead, as if on the verge of a migraine.
“I love him, Mom. Does that mean anything to you? Do you remember that word from somewhere? He makes my heart beat faster. I can’t live without him.”
Ella heard herself chuckle. It was not her intention to make fun of her daughter’s feelings, not at all, but that was probably what her laughing to herself sounded like. For reasons unknown to her, she felt extremely nervous. She’d had fights with Jeannette before, hundreds of them, but today it felt as though she were quarreling with something else, something bigger.
“Mom, haven’t you ever been in love?” Jeannette retorted, a hint of contempt creeping into her tone.
“Oh, give me a break! Stop daydreaming and get real, will you? You’re being so ... ” Ella’s eyes darted toward the window, hunting for a dramatic word, until finally she came up with “ . . . romantic!”
“What’s wrong with being romantic?” Jeannette asked, sounding offended.
Really, what was wrong with being romantic? Ella wondered. Since when was she so annoyed by romanticism? Unable to answer the questions tugging at the edges of her mind, she continued all the same. “Come on, honey. Which century are you living in? Just get it in your head, women don’t marry the men they fall in love with. When push comes to shove, they choose the guy who’ll be a good father and a reliable husband. Love is only a sweet feeling bound to come and quickly go away.”
When she finished talking, Ella turned to her husband. David had clasped his hands in front of him, slowly as if through water, and was looking at her like he’d never seen her before.
“I know why you’re doing this,” Jeannette said. “You’re jealous of my happiness and my youth. You want to make an unhappy housewife out of me. You want me to be you, Mom.”
Ella felt a strange, sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach, as if she had a giant rock sitting there. Was she an unhappy housewife? A middle-aged mom trapped in a failing marriage? Was this how her children saw her? And her husband, too? What about friends and neighbors? Suddenly she had the feeling that everyone around her secretly pitied her, and the suspicion was so painful that she gasped.
“You should apologize to your mom,” David said, turning to Jeannette with a frown on his face.
“It’s all right. I don’t expect an apology,” Ella said dejectedly.
Jeannette gave her mother a mock leer. And just like that, she pushed back her chair, threw her napkin aside, and walked out of the kitchen. After a minute Orly and Avi silently followed suit, either in an unusual act of solidarity with their elder sister or because they’d gotten bored of all this adult talk. Aunt Esther left next, mumbling some poor excuse while chewing fiercely on her last antacid tablet.
David and Ella remained at the table, an intense awkwardness hanging in the air between them. It pained Ella to have to face this void, which, as they both knew, had nothing to do with Jeannette or any of their children.
David grabbed the fork he had put aside and inspected it for a while. “So should I conclude that you didn’t marry the man you loved?”
“Oh, please, that’s not what I meant.”
“What is it you meant, then?” David said, still talking to the fork. “I thought you were in love with me when we got married.”
“I was in love with you,” Ella said, but couldn’t help adding, “back then.”
“So when did you stop loving me?” David asked, deadpan.
Ella looked at her husband in astonishment, like someone who had never seen her reflection before and who now held a mirror to her face. Had she stopped loving him? It was a question she had never asked herself before. She wanted to respond but lacked not so much the will as the words. Deep inside she knew it was the two of them they should be concerned about, not their children. But instead they were doing what they both were best at: letting the days go by, the routine take over, and time run its course of inevitable torpor.
She started to cry, unable to hold back this continuing sadness that had, without her knowledge, become a part of who she was. David turned his anguished face away. They both knew he hated to see her cry just as much as she hated to cry in front of him. Fortunately, the phone rang just then, saving them.
David picked it up. “Hello . . . yes, she’s here. Hold on, please.”
Ella pulled herself together and spoke up, doing her best to sound in good spirits. “Yes, this is Ella.”
“Hi, this is Michelle. Sorry to bother you over the weekend,” chirped a young woman’s voice. “It’s just that yesterday Steve wanted me to check in with you, and I simply forgot. Did you have a chance to start working on the manuscript?”
“Oh.” Ella sighed, only now remembering the task awaiting her.
Her first assignment at the literary agency was to read a novel by an unknown European author. She was then expected to write an extensive report on it.
“Tell him not to worry. I’ve already started reading,” Ella lied. Ambitious and headstrong, Michelle was the kind of person she didn’t want to upset on her first assignment.
“Oh, good! How is it?”
Ella paused, puzzled as to what to say. She didn’t know anything about the manuscript, except that it was a historical novel centered on the life of the famous mystic poet Rumi, who she learned was called “the Shakespeare of the Islamic world.”
“Oh, it’s very . . . mystical.” Ella chuckled, hoping to cover with a joke.
But Michelle was all business. “Right,” she said flatly. “Listen, I think you need to get on this. It might take longer than you expect to write a report on a novel like that. . . . ”
There was a distant muttering on the phone as Michelle’s voice trailed off. Ella imagined her juggling several tasks simultaneously—checking e-mails, reading a review on one of her authors, taking a bite from her tuna-salad sandwich, and polishing her fingernails—all while talking on the phone.
“Are you still there?” Michelle asked a minute later.
“Yes, I am.”
“Good. Listen, it’s crazy in here. I need to go. Just keep in mind the deadline is in three weeks.”
“I know,” Ella said abruptly, trying to sound more determined. “I’ll make the deadline.”
The truth was, Ella wasn’t sure she wanted to evaluate this manuscript at all. In the beginning she’d been so eager and confident. It had felt thrilling to be the first one to read an unpublished novel by an unknown author and to play however small a role in his fate. But now she wasn’t sure if she could concentrate on a subject as irrelevant to her life as Sufism and a time as distant as the thirteenth century.
Michelle must have detected her hesitation. “Is there a problem?” she asked. When no answer came, she grew insistent. “Listen, you can confide in me.”
After a bit of silence, Ella decided to tell her the truth.
“It’s just that I’m not sure I’m in the right state of mind these days to concentrate on a historical novel. I mean, I’m interested in Rumi and all that, but still, the subject is alien to me. Perhaps you could give me another novel—you know, something I could more easily relate to.”
“That’s such a skewed approach,” said Michelle. “You think you can work better with books you know something about? Not at all! Just because you live in this state, you can’t expect to edit only novels that take place in Massachusetts, right?”
“That’s not what I meant . . .” Ella said, and immediately realized she had uttered the same sentence too many times this afternoon. She glanced at her husband to see if he, too, had noticed this, but David’s expression was hard to decipher.
“Most of the time, we have to read books that have nothing to do with our lives. That’s part of our job. Just this week I finished working on a book by an Iranian woman who used to operate a brothel in Tehran and had to flee the country. Should I have told her to send the manuscript to an Iranian agency instead?”
“No, of course not,” Ella mumbled, feeling silly and guilty.
“Isn’t connecting people to distant lands and cultures one of the strengths of good literature?”
“Sure it is. Listen, forget what I said. You’ll have a report on your desk before the deadline,” Ella conceded, hating Michelle for treating her as if she were the dullest person alive and hating herself for allowing this to happen.
“Wonderful, that’s the spirit,” Michelle concluded in her singsong voice. “Don’t get me wrong, but I think you should bear in mind that there are dozens of people out there who would love to have your job. And most of them are almost half your age. That’ll keep you motivated.”
When Ella hung up the phone, she found David watching her, his face solemn and reserved. He seemed to be waiting for them to pick up where they’d left off. But she didn’t feel like mulling over their daughter’s future anymore, if that was what they’d been worrying about in the first place.
Later in the day, she was alone on the porch sitting in her favorite rocking chair, looking at the orangey-red Northampton sunset. The sky felt so close and open that you could almost touch it. Her brain had gone quiet, as if tired of all the noise swirling inside. This month’s credit-card payments, Orly’s bad eating habits, Avi’s poor grades, Aunt Esther and her sad cakes, her dog Spirit’s decaying health, Jeannette’s marriage plans, her husband’s secret flings, the absence of love in her life . . . One by one, she locked them all in small mental boxes.
In that frame of mind, Ella took the manuscript out of its package and bounced it in her hand, as if weighing it. The title of the novel was written on the cover in indigo ink: Sweet Blasphemy.
Ella had been told that nobody knew much about the author—a certain A. Z. Zahara, who lived in Holland. His manuscript had been shipped to the literary agency from Amsterdam with a postcard inside the envelope. On the front of the postcard was a picture of tulip fields in dazzling pinks, yellows, and purples, and on the back a note written in delicate handwriting:
Greetings from Amsterdam. The story I herewith send you takes place in thirteenth-century Konya in Asia Minor. But I sincerely believe that it cuts across countries, cultures, and centuries.
I hope you will have the time to read SWEET BLASPHEMY, a historical, mystical novel on the remarkable bond between Rumi, the best poet and most revered spiritual leader in the history of Islam, and Shams of Tabriz, an unknown, unconventional dervish full of scandals and surprises.
May love be always with you and you always surrounded with love.
A. Z. Zahara
Reading Group Guide
A novel within a novel, The Forty Rules of Love tells two parallel stories that mirror each other across two very different cultures and seven intervening centuries.
Forty-year-old Ella Rubenstein is an ordinary unhappy housewife with three children and an unfaithful husband, but her life begins to change dramatically when she takes a job as a reader for a literary agency. Her first assignment is a novel intriguingly titled Sweet Blasphemy, about the thirteenth-century poet Rumi and his beloved Sufi teacher Shams of Tabriz. The author is an unknown first-time novelist, Aziz Zahara, who lives in Turkey. Initially reluctant to take on a book about a time and place so different from her own, Ella soon finds herself captivated both by the novel and the man who wrote it, with whom she begins an e-mail flirtation. As she reads, she begins to question the many ways she has settled for a conventional life devoid of passion and real love.
At the center of the novel that Ella is reading is the remarkable, wandering, whirling dervish Shams of Tabriz, a mystic provocateur who challenges conventional wisdom and social and religious prejudice wherever he encounters it. He is searching for the spiritual companion he is destined to teach. His soul's purpose is to transform his student, Rumi—a beloved but rather complacent, unmystical preacher—into one of the world's great poets, the "voice of love." Rumi is a willing student, but his family and community resent Shams deeply for upsetting their settled way of life. Rumi is admired, even revered in his community and Shams must lead him beyond the comforts of his respectable way of life, beyond the shallow satisfactions of the ego.
In essence, both Rumi and Ella, through their relationships with Shams and Aziz, are forced to question and then abandon the apparent safety and security of their lives for the uncertainty, ecstasy, and heartbreak of love. Neither Shams nor Aziz can offer anything like a promise of lasting happiness. What they can offer is a taste of mystical union, divine love, the deep harmony that arises when the false self—constructed to meet society's demands for respectability—is shed and the true self emerges.
Along the way, Shams imparts the forty rules of love, essential Sufi wisdom that Shams both preaches and embodies. He repeatedly defies social and religious conventions, putting himself in danger and drawing down the scorn and wrath of the self-righteous, literal-minded moralists who surround him. He inspires Rumi to become the poet he was meant to be, one of the world's most passionate and profound voices of wisdom. Similarly, Aziz—and his story of Rumi and Shams—inspires Ella to step out of a marriage that has become emotionally and spiritually stifling for her.
It is not an easy story that Elif Shafak tells, nor an entirely happy one. There are costs, she seems to say, to living an authentic life. But, as the novel shows, the costs of not living one are far greater.
ABOUT ELIF SHAFAK
Elif Shafak was born in Strasbourg, France, in 1971. She is an award-winning novelist and the most widely read female writer in Turkey. Critics have hailed her as one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary literature in both Turkish and English. She is also the author of the novel The Bastard of Istanbul and her memoir, Black Milk. Her books have been translated into more than thirty languages. Married with two children, Elif divides her time between London and Istanbul.
A CONVERSATION WITH ELIF SHAFAK
Q. What prompted you to write a novel centered on the relationship between Rumi and his beloved teacher Shams of Tabriz? Has Rumi's poetry always been important to you?
My starting point, as simple as it sounds, was the concept of love. I wanted to write a novel on love but from a spiritual angle. Once you make that your wish the path takes you to Rumi, the voice of love. His poetry and philosophy have always inspired me. His words speak to us across centuries, cultures. One can never finish reading him; it is an endless journey.
Q. Why did you decide to make The Forty Rules of Love such a polyphonic novel, using so many different narrators?
The truth of fiction is not a fixed thing. If anything, it is more fluid than solid. It changes depending on each person, each character. Literature, unlike daily politics, recognizes the significance of ambiguity, plurality, flexibility. Interestingly, this artistic approach is also in harmony with Sufi philosophy. Sufis, like artists, live in an ever-fluid world. They believe one should never be too sure of himself and they respect the amazing diversity in the universe. So it was very important to me to reflect that variety as I was writing my story.
Q. What kind of research did you do for the novel? How much imaginative license did you take with the historical facts?
When you write about historical figures you feel somewhat intimidated at the beginning. It is not like writing about imaginary characters. So to get the facts right, I did a lot of research. It is not a new subject to me. I wrote my master's thesis on this subject and I have been working on it since my early twenties. So there was some background. However, after a period of intense reading and researching, I stopped doing that and solely concentrated in my story. I allowed the characters to guide me. In my experience the more we, as writers, try to control our characters, the more lifeless they become. By the same token, the less there is of the ego of the writer in the process of writing, the more alive the fictional characters and the more creative the story.
Q. What are the challenges of writing about such a well-known and revered figure like Rumi? Do you feel you succeeded remaining true to the historical Rumi while bringing him fully into the imaginative realm of your novel?
It was a big challenge, I must say. On the one hand I have huge respect for both Rumi and Shams of Tabriz. So it was important to me to hear their voices, to understand their legacy as best as I could. Yet on the other hand, I am a writer. I do not believe in heroes. In literature, there are no perfect heroes. Every person is a microcosm with many sides and conflicting aspects. So it was essential for me to see them as human beings, without putting them up on a pedestal.
Q. Did your perception of Rumi and of Shams change in the course of writing about them?
Writing this novel changed me perhaps in more ways than I can understand or explain. Every book changes us to a certain extent. Some books more so than others. They transform their readers, and they also transform their writers. This was one of those books for me. When I finished it I was not the same person I was at the beginning.
Q. Much of the novel concerns the position of women both in the medieval Islamic world and in contemporary Western society. What is your sense of how women are faring in the Middle East today compared to women in Western cultures?
We tend to think that as human beings we have made amazing progress throughout the centuries. And we like to think that the women in the West are emancipated whereas women in the East are oppressed all the time. I like to question these deeply embedded clichés and generalizations. It is true that we have made progress but in some other ways we are not as different from the people of the past as we like to think. Also there are so many things in common between the women in the East and the women in the West. Patriarchy is universal. It is not solely the problem of some women in some parts of the world. Basically, as I was writing this novel I wanted to connect people, places, stories—to show the connections, some obvious, some much more subtle.
Q. How would you explain the extraordinary popularity of Rumi in the West right now? What is it about his poetry—and his spirituality—that readers find so engaging?
I don't think it is a coincidence that the voice of Rumi speaks to more and more people around the world today. His is the kind of spirituality that doesn't exclude anyone, no matter what their class, skin, religion, and so on. It is a very inclusive, embracing, universal voice that puts love at its center. In Rumi's perspective we are all connected. No one is excluded from that circle of love. In an age replete with cultural biases, dogmas, fundamentalisms of all sorts, and clashes, Rumi's voice tells us something different, something much more essential and peaceful.
Q. What aspects of Sufism do you find most appealing and relevant to contemporary life? Do you have a sense that the mystical strands of Islam—represented by Shams of Tabriz in the novel—are beginning to balance out the more fundamentalist views—represented by the Zealot—in contemporary Islamic cultures?
Mysticism and poetry have always been important elements in Islamic cultures. This has been the case throughout the centuries. The Muslim world is not composed of a single color. And it is not static at all. It is a tapestry of multiple colors and patterns. Sufism is not an ancient, bygone heritage. It is a living, breathing philosophy of life. It is applicable to the modern day. It teaches us to look within and transform ourselves, to diminish our egos. There are more and more people, especially women, artists, musicians, and so on, who are deeply interested in this culture.
Q. Could you talk about your own spiritual practice and its relation to your creative work?
My interest in spirituality started when I was a college student. At the time it was a bit odd for me to feel such an attraction. I did not grow up in a spiritual environment. My upbringing was just the opposite, it was strictly secular. And I was a leftist, anarcho-pacifist, slightly nihilist, and feminist, and so on, and so were most of my friends, and there was no apparent reason for me to be interested in Sufism or anything like that. But I started reading about it. Not only Islamic mysticism but mysticisms of all kinds, because they are all reflections of the same universal quest for meaning and love. The more I read the more I unlearned. Unlearning is an essential part of learning, in my experience. We need to keep questioning our truths, our certainties, our dogmas, and ourselves. This kind of introspective thinking, to me, is healthier than criticizing other people all the time.
Q. How has The Forty Rules of Love been received in Turkey and throughout the Middle East? Has that reception differed significantly from how American readers have responded to the book?
It was amazing, and so moving. In Turkey the novel was an all time bestseller. There was such positive, warm feedback from readers, especially from women readers, of all ages, of all views. Often the same book was read by more than one person, by the mother, the daughters, the great-aunt, a distant cousin. The story reached different audiences. When the novel came out in Bulgaria, France, America, and Italy, I had similar reactions, and I still receive touching e-mails from readers around the world. When readers write to me they don't solely analyze the novel, they also say what it meant for them. In other words they share their personal stories with me. And I find that very humbling, very inspiring.
- Shafak has written a novel within a novel—Sweet Blasphemy, set in thirteenth-century Turkey and Iraq, within The Forty Rules of Love, set in twenty-first-century Massachusetts. How do the two stories relate to and illuminate each other? What are the pleasures of such narrative layering across time and space?
- In what ways does Ella's relationship with Aziz mirror Rumi's relationship with Shams? How does love shake up their worlds and push them out of their comfort zones?
- What does the novel suggest about the challenges women faced—particularly in terms of relationships and spiritual aspirations—in medieval Islamic societies?
- In what ways does Ella change over the course of the novel? In what ways does Rumi change?
- Both Aziz's and Ella's friends argue that it makes no sense for Ella to leave her husband when she can have no future with Aziz. Does Ella make the right decision in choosing love and the present moment over security and the future? What would Shams think of her choice?
- In what ways are Sweet Blasphemy and The Forty Rules of Love both about the need to break free from conventions and the fear of the opinion of others, the desire for safety, respectability, and security? What instances of defying convention stand out in the novel? What is the price to be paid for going against prevailing opinion?
- What is most surprising about Shafak's portrait of Rumi in The Forty Rules of Love? How much of Rumi's life and religious practice was familiar to you before you read the novel?
- In a sense, The Forty Rules of Love is about the transformative power of reading, as it is a novel—Sweet Blasphemy—that begins to change Ella's life. What is Shafak saying about the personal and imaginative potential of fiction? Have you had similarly transformative experiences from reading novels?
- What struggles do women face in the Islamic world of Sweet Blasphemy? In what ways do social conventions and religious stricture inhibit the lives of Kerra, Kimya, and Desert Rose the Harlot?
- What does the novel as whole say about love? Does it espouse a consistent philosophy of the nature, purpose, and value of love? Which of the forty rules speak to you most directly?
THE STORY BEHIND THE FORTY RULES OF LOVE by Elif Shafak
My interest in Sufism began when I was a college student. At the time I was a rebellious young woman who liked to wrap several shawls of “–isms” around her shoulders: I was a leftist, feminist, nihilist, environmentalist, anarcho-pacifist…. I wasn’t interested in any religion and the difference between “religiosity” and “spirituality” was lost to me. Having spent some time of my childhood with a loving grandmother with many superstitions and beliefs, I had a sense the world was not composed of solely material things and there was more to life than I could see. But the truth is, I wasn’t interested in understanding the world. I only wanted to change it.
I loved books. I had started reading fiction and writing short stories at an early age, not because I wanted to be a professional writer at the time, but because I found my life dull and boring. I enjoyed living in the stories I wrote. I was an only child. I was raised by a single, working mother who could not spend much time with me. Due to my mother’s profession we lived in different countries. Wherever I went “imagination” was the first suitcase I took with me.
Little by little, I had built a private world, an inner space where stories floated freely. This was my life before college and when college started, old habits did not change. Whenever I could I retreated into that private space and I read, read, read. Books were the bridges that connected me to the world. It is no wonder, then, that my interest in Sufism, too, began with books.
It wasn’t one particular book, but a series of books. I started reading on Sufism out of intellectual curiosity. One book led to another. A scrap of information in a footnote in one book guided me to another book. The more I read the more I unlearned. Because that is what Sufism does to you, it makes you “erase” what you know and what you are so sure of. Then you start thinking again. Not with your mind this time, but with your heart.
Among all the Sufi poets and philosophers that I read about during those years there were two names that moved me with their words: Shams of Tabriz and the great Rumi. In an age of deeply-embedded bigotries and clashes, they had stood for a universal spirituality, opening their doors to people of all backgrounds equally. They spoke of love as the essence of life, love that connected us all across centuries, cultures and cities. As I kept reading the Mathnawi, Rumi’s words gently removed the shawls I had wrapped around myself, layer upon layer, as if I was always in need of some warmth coming from outside.
I understood that whatever I chose to be, “leftist”, “feminist” or anything else, what I needed truly was the light inside of me. The light that exists inside all of us.
Thus began my interest in Sufism and spirituality. Over the years it went through several stages and seasons. Sometimes it was more vivid and visible, sometimes it receded to the background, but it never disappeared.
Spiritual paths are like stars in the dark satin of the sky. Some are long dead but their light still shines upon us. Some are there but we cannot see them. Some have been in the same place for such a long time we take simply them for granted. All together they set alight the sky we look up at for meaning and inspiration as we move toward the promise of a new day, a new Self. That sky is the same endless sea of love above a rebellious college student in Istanbul or a housewife living in Boston.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I first came upon this book as I entered my local Barnes & Noble store and noticed two copies sitting on the front table of New Arrivals. The first thing that caught my eye was the brilliant and intricately detailed, beautiful cover. Then the title... The Forty Rules of Love - A Novel of Rumi. I must tell you that I believe in synchronicities and I had just been reading one of my many books of Rumi's poems through the preceeding week... I love his emotion, his beauty and his words. His philosophy and spiritual love that transcends through his poetry is exhilerating and captivating. Then I proceeded to read the intro about Shams within the book and immediately knew that I had to purchase this book. Within 3 days of crying, emotion, overwhelming feelings of love and surrender, I had read the book in its entireity, finding it very hard to put down. The author, Elif Shafak has captured the very essence of what Shams and Rumi had between each other and told their story with honor and humbleness. Such love does exist and at this moment in my life when I have felt that maybe it didn't, she has moved me to tears and rocked the core of my soul with her work and words... renewing my belief in true love and the honor & commitment between two souls that are meant to be together... no matter the odds & barriers. Thank you Elif! I loved how she intertwined the present day relationship between Ella Rubenstein & Aziz Zahara with Shams and Rumi's relationship of long ago and yet still felt to this present day through the poetry of Rumi translated by many. After finishing the novel, I could hardly catch my breath... I cried, I laughed...then I immediately went out and bought a book for a dear friend of mine as she too loves Rumi and I knew this book was something she would treasure forever as I do. When an author can captivate the reader's senses to a measurement of moving them to complete emotion and ecstasy... she or he is more than just an author... they transcend space and time and bring to us the joy and love that we are all looking for within ourselves and outside of ourselves. Tashi Daley Elif... (I honor the greatness in you.) - Maggie153
This is such a beautiful book....spirituality uplifting and thought provoking.My favorite parts were the interactions of Shams with Rumi. This is one of the favorite books and thanks to this I got curious about Elif Shafak and she is one of my favorite authors.
The Forty Rules Of Love is a book that I hesitated to buy and read for a loooong time. Whenever I stopped by a bookshop, I saw it, picked up, paged through it and left it back many many times since I held love cheap. Then one day a close friend of mine recommended this book to me excitedly saying I would love it. So I did, still a bit unwillingly. And It smashed me on every page!! When I finished the book, I was in a great shock and there was nothing left from my old self. Little did I know what love was. Love had nothing to do with that love I knew! Since then I'm on pursuit of real love, real meaning of life and never felt I was this close before. Thank Elif Safak a million for this chance! I'll treasure this amazing book forever and never ever lose my way home again!
For anyone that is interested in love and spirituality. A fantastic book with great characters and great insights. Not only a fun read but an enlightening one as well.
This Book is a historic fiction,based on the teachings of Rumi and the practices of Sufism.It an excellent book because it is a stark contrast to the Fundamentally rigid religion that is the reality of Wahabism. Sufi's teach moderation, love and benevolence, whereas the fundamentalist teach intolerance,rigidity and exclusion.I Wish people would enlighten themselves with this Book.
love to read, and being slightly familiar with Rumi's poetry , I loved how this author incorporated the 13th century mystical man's views to the story. Really enjoyed it and hated it to finish.
Ella is twenty years into what is now a loveless marriage. She rationalizes this by thinking that love is not important. When her college age daughter tells her at the books beginning that she wants to get married, Ella quickly dismisses the notion that being in love is a valid reason for marriage. Then she begins reading a manuscript of a novel written by a Scottish man who converted to Sufism, which explores the relationship between Rumi and Shams of Tabriz. This manuscript is presented as a book within a book, and is actually a much greater percentage of the novel than Ella's story. Shams was a wandering dervish who becomes a companion to Rumi, before Rumi became a poet, when he was preaching sermons to the Muslim community in Konya and was highly respected as a scholar. Shams influences Rumi to adopt Sufi beliefs and in the process, Shams becomes hated in the community and Rumi loses his previous standing. We learn this story through the voices of many different characters - Rumi and Shams, and Rumi's family, and community members, mostly from the outcasts whom Shams had befriended. This book greatly influences Ella and changes her outlook about love. She starts an email relationship with the author of the book, and starts ignoring her husband. she yearns for a different life in which she/ can be happy. I almost gave up on this book at the very beginning because I was put off by the opening scene where Ella states her views about the meaningless of love. but, I am glad that I decided to continue. The story of Shams and Rumi is highly interesting and I enjoyed being transported into their world.
I read this book in turkish and found it really amazing. The story is well developed. Great novel about sufism. After I started reading, It really got my interest and read it very quickly. If you are interested in Sufism and Rumi I would highly reccomand this book. You won't regret. Enjoy :)
When I started this book I was very excited as I could really relate to the main character. However, I soon realized that this was a book that not only switched back and forth between present day and the 13th century but also back and forth from the voice of over a half dozen different people!!! It took me a while to make sense of all of this and get in the flow of the "book" within the book. In fact I almost gave up. However, about halfway through it all started to make sense and and I really enjoyed it. That being said this book at times, is one of those preachy-self-reflective type of books sort of like "Eat Pray Love" which I couldn't even make it through. I definitely liked this book a lot more than the aforementioned, and was particularly enthralled with some of the less important characters such at the harlot and the drunk. I would not recommend this as a nice light holiday read - definitely something to read and mull over. Would make a good book club choice!
I enjoyed reading this book. I found that I could relate to Ella's character in many ways. Her struggles with marriage ,motherhood and the quest for happiness resonated with me. It was also an interesting look at religion vs. spirituality as I struggle with this issue. I liked how an old story was mixed with new and found it very interesting to read the different points of view. The story moved along and kept me interested and was eerily appropriate for this time of my life and also with other books I have read recently.
Ella is twenty years into what is now a loveless marriage. She rationalizes this by thinking that love is not important. When her college age daughter tells her at the books beginning that she wants to get married, Ella quickly dismisses the notion that being in love is a valid reason for marriage.Then she begins reading a manuscript of a novel written by a Scottish man who converted to Sufism, which explores the relationship between Rumi and Shams of Tabriz. This manuscript is presented as a book within a book, and is actually a much greater percentage of the novel than Ella's story. Shams was a wandering dervish who becomes a companion to Rumi, before Rumi became a poet, when he was preaching sermons to the Muslim community in Konya and was highly respected as a scholar. He influences Rumi to adopt Sufi beliefs and in the process, Shams becomes hated in the community and Rumi loses his previous standing. We learn this story through the voices of many different characters - Rumi and Shams, and Rumi's family, and community members, mostly from the outcasts whom Shams had befriended.This book greatly influences Ella and changes her outlook about love. She starts an email relationship with the author of the book, and starts ignoring her husband. she yearns for a different life in which she can be happy.I almost gave up on this book at the very beginning because I was put off by the opening scene where Ella states her views about the meaningless of love. but, I am glad that I decided to continue. The story of Shams and Rumi was highly interesting and I enjoyed being transported into their world.
Forty Rules "teaches" in much the same way as "Breakfast with Buddha"; but you expect that when you're reading about Rumi (actually it's more about Shams of Tabriz) and Buddha. Here is my memorable quote:"Every true love and friendship is a story of unexpected transformation. If we are the same person before and after we loved, that means we haven't loved enough."It all depends on how you understand "transformation". The second statement in the quote is unskilfully phrased.
Elif attempts to weave a story filled with two very complex narratives. One is a housewife name Ella; the other is the Suft poet Rumi and Shams. What we get thought is a buttoned shirt at the end which has skipped a button somewhere leaving you slightly disgusted. Personally, the Rumi segments are simply brilliant. The spiritual quest, which Ella is on, leaves you wanting more. If I were to read just the Rumi segments the book would get five stars.
I enjoyed this unusual book. It is about a modern day housewife who's marriage and life has stalled and who discovers a new side to herself as she develops an unexpected relationship with the author of a book she is reading. It is also about an ancient historical poet named Rumi and a Sufi named Sham. This parallel plot is deeply intertwined with the first plot and is the driving factor in the plot development of the surface story. The writing style of this book makes it both challenging, interesting and sometimes frustrating to read. It is told from the perspectives of many different characters, sometimes in first person and sometimes in third. Add this to the constant shifting back and forth between past and present and you get a book that challenges the reader to re-adjust his/her prespective every few pages. This unusual approach to the writing in the book caused two effects for me. In some ways it keeps the story in motion and keeps the reader engaged. On the other hand, I found it was a bit cluttered. There were too many characters with too many opinions. I was far more interested in the progression of certain characters over others and it got a bit frustrating at times. Overall, it was an interesting, well thought out book & I'm glad to have had the opportunity to read it.
Initially I found the Forty Rules of Love to be quite an engaging read. Unfortunately, the further I ventured in, it began to seem like there was just too much going on. This is a tale of multiple characters, stories, voices and messages. Although many of the characters were interesting in and of themselves, we only get very brief snapshots before we move onto the next story or place, making it difficult to stay engaged. As a result, the pearls of real and thought-provoking wisdom scattered throughout the story get rather muddied by the context. Thanks for the opportunity to read and review this book. I hope it will be successful.
Not the book I was hoping it would be. I was interested in learning more about Rumi, but this book was much more about his friend Shams of Tabriz than about the poet himself. Worse, it was overlaid with a contemporary love story that failed to deepen the history. The love story seemed pasted on top, and I didn't believe the contemporary protagonist Ell; mostly she was under-written. I could understand her leaving her husband, but not her children. But I don't recall her considering them in making her decision.On top of this (and perhaps it's a case of English not being the author's mother-tongue), there was no difference in between the language of the contemporary characters and those of the 13th century. As well, there was little in the way of character differentiation from character to character; everyone speaks the same, feels the same. Sure, some are good and some are evil, and they have their own point of view, but if an author is going to write from constantly shifting first person perspective, I'd like to be able to feel it's a different person speaking without the help of the chapter titles.Finally, an almost complete lack of humour or wit, and this wasn't the book for me. Probably means it will be a bestseller when it's published in February.